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Clarke, Stephen: What nations remember: Martyn Brown on what happened in Crete in 1941

Stephen Clarke*

‘What nations remember: Martyn Brown on what happened in Crete in 1941’, Honest History, 30 November 2019

Stephen Clarke reviews Martyn Brown’s Politics of Forgetting: New Zealand, Greece and Britain at War

On 20 May 2011, I was an eyewitness to an impassioned address by Major-General WB ‘Sandy’ Thomas at the New Zealand Memorial at Galatas, on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the Battle for Crete. Thomas recalled being wounded during the famous ‘Stand for New Zealand!’ attack led at Galatas by Brigadier Howard Kippenberger (later Editor-in-Chief of the Official History of New Zealand in the Second World War) on 25 May 1941, and how a girl came to attend to him and 70 years later she emerged from the crowd.

Image result for Politics of Forgetting: New Zealand, Greece and Britain at WarIt is interesting to read on page 1 of Politics of Forgetting, therefore, that this address took place ‘in the western town of Chania’ and, although the village of Galatas, some six kilometres from the centre of Chania, had come under its municipality just months earlier, the proud villagers and veterans that danced late into the night knew this as the Battle for Galatas.

This opening episode is instructive of the main thesis of Martyn Brown’s book on ‘the place of Greece in New Zealand war commemoration i.e. what is remembered. But what has been forgotten in the process?’ (p. 2)

The first of the book’s seven chapters introduces us to the main thesis of Politics of Forgetting, namely the importance of the Second World War – its history and remembrance – to the New Zealand state and nation-building. New Zealand official memory emphasises the special Greek-New Zealand relationship and absent from this national storytelling are the complex, divisive and unpalatable aspects. The book also highlights that the state seeks to legitimise its leadership in official memory and war remembrance so as to legitimise decisions at the time.

Chapter Two provides the historical context, as it examines the commonalities, differences and changes between the two countries during and after the war.

Then, Chapter Three, ‘Giving meaning to the losses of 1941’, gets to the heart of the New Zealand state’s decisions on what to project of the fighting in Greece and Crete during April-May 1941 and afterwards during the making of the official war history. A particularly interesting aspect is the role of commander, General Bernard Freyberg, in championing the Greek connection, particularly as his command during the Battle for Crete was so controversial then and since. Other New Zealand state actors adopted policies that impeded the special treatment of the Greeks during the war, revealing that while Greece was a nation fraught with divisions, New Zealand was not a homogeneous entity either when it came to dealing with Greece.

Chapter Four examines New Zealand’s enthusiasm, cynicism and a lack of co-ordination in soldiering with the regular Greek army in the post-Crete era during the campaigns in North Africa and Italy, as well as those individual New Zealanders who fought alongside partisans in Greece and Crete. It also reveals the use of the memory of 1941 to deflect attention from New Zealand involvement in the explosive Greek political scene and its opposition to British actions in Greece, both at the time and during the subsequent memory-making years.

Chapter Five sees Freyberg once again effect a major change in terms of humanitarian aid to a Greek population suffering under occupation. It and later postwar efforts, linked to commemorations, demonstrate the divergence between citizens, veterans and the state over Greece. The chapter also examines the efforts and policies to materially compensate Greeks and Cretans who had assisted New Zealand soldiers, as well as New Zealand’s involvement in seeing the German enemy face charges of war crimes on Crete.

Chapter Six, ‘Taking sides’, delves deeper into the politics of where, when and in what context New Zealanders chose which Greeks they would support during the political crises and the civil war that dominated Greece during the decade after 1941. The disagreements demonstrate again the disunity among New Zealanders both during the events themselves and later when the state wanted to enhance its image.

Brown’s concluding chapter, ‘Reality versus remembering’, argues that ‘New Zealand clearly had a more complex wartime interconnection with Greece than what is celebrated in official memory’ (p. 281). Here is a national story that expunges the New Zealand experience of Greece’s massive internal divisions as well as the Anglo-Greek diplomatic dynamic because ‘[o]fficial memory-making of war requires moral simplicity and tales of martial prowess’ (p. 284).

Overall, the making of the official war memory is the most interesting aspect of the book but this reviewer believes it was sometimes lost under the sheer weight of evidence. This history honestly feels like the doctorate thesis it is derived from, complete with over 1300 endnotes that together with the bibliography amount to 100-plus pages or a quarter of the book! When university theses are, thankfully, readily available online (as is Brown’s thesis) the monograph provides an opportunity to refine the PhD, but this requires making tough decisions over what research to leave on the editing floor. This book would have benefited from this exercise and, frankly, with a closer edit. For example, the quote from New Zealand historian Matthew Wright on pages 11-12 does not need to be repeated verbatim in endnote 8 on page 289.

General_FreybergBernard Freyberg (Wikipedia)

There is much in Brown’s extensive research in the archives in the Greece, New Zealand and the United Kingdom that is new and revealing about New Zealand’s involvement in the Greek Campaign and the New Zealand-Greek nexus during and after the Second World War. The book is a valuable contribution to our understanding of official memory and to the discipline of war memory studies. I do not, however, share the author’s astonishment that the state might want to remember some things and not others. Veterans themselves are selective about what they remember, the stories they tell, and what they try to forget. As the anthropologist Clifford Geertz reminded us many years ago humans use rituals, such as war remembrance, as ‘a story they tell themselves about themselves.’[1] Nation states are no different.

A final footnote, in 2011 and prior to the 70th anniversary commemorations in Crete, I attended a meeting with the then Minister of Defence, Dr Wayne Mapp, at the Beehive in Wellington. The discussion on the upcoming anniversary, veterans paying their own way (Australian veterans went courtesy of the Commonwealth government) and the invitation from Galatas to Major-General Sandy Thomas was like watching a possum in the headlights and in the aftermath of the media controversy became political ‘road kill’ – the politics of forgetting.

* Stephen Clarke is a History graduate of the University of Otago and completed a PhD at the University of New South Wales Canberra, with an interest in the impact of war on society and remembrance. He was Chief Executive of the Royal New Zealand Returned and Services Association 2008–13 and Head of Remembrance at the Royal British Legion 2014–15 before founding Making History Ltd in 2015. He has since had three books published, including After the War: The RSA in New Zealand in 2016. He tweets @StephenClarkeNZ.


[1] Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays by Clifford Geertz (New York: Basic Books, 1973), p. 448.